On September 1, 1989 two disparate worlds within the same nation briefly overlapped. Then President George H.W. Bush and his speechwriters mulled over what would be the new leaders first address to the nation while vacationing at the Bush compound in affluent Kennebunkport, MA. Far removed from the shores of Kennebunkport, in the shadows of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, 18 year-old Keith Timothy Jackson toiled in the District crack trade, chasing his iteration of the american dream. As Bush and his operatives searched for a tool to dramatize a forthcoming speech on the nation’s drug control strategy, they stumbled on just the right “prop,” local Spingarn High School senior, Keith Jackson.
In his own admission of events, Bush concedes the “first Oval Office address for a President is a big deal.” Bush wanted to set the tone for his administration, one avowedly rooted in promises of law and order, stability, and the security of a CIA past. According to Bush, the 2.4 ounce bag of crack cocaine that he would hold before the nation–one purchased in a drug sting involving Jackson–was the “perfect prop.” A closer look suggests that the crack in question was not the only politically useful prop at the drug war’s disposal. While Bush only managed to hold up that plastic bag by the nape, he may well have been holding up Jackson, and countless underclass youth like him before the nation. In addition to Jackson and those that fit the drug courier profile, the neighborhoods in which they resided also became useful background noise in the broader chorus of the crack scourge.
The message of the address was clear. Crack had already eaten up the rotten core of cities nationwide and threatened to do the same to more prized and affluent neighborhoods absent swift, aggressive government action. Jackson, the drugs he purveyed, and the communities that harbored youth like him were the threat to be punished and controlled. To drive this point home, Bush and his handlers wanted to send the message that crack was being bought and sold anywhere. Given that this was far from the case in reality, the DOJ and DEA were asked to manufacture a reality in which crack cocaine was sold “near the White House.” Enter unwitting local youth and disposable citizen Keith Jackson. In the words of one White House aide, Bush “liked the prop” because it “drove the point home.” The dramatic prop would show how the crack trade had spread to even the President’s own neighborhood, even if it really hadn’t.
After settling on the utility of holding up a bag of crack in the Oval Office, DEA agents were tasked with staging a buy close to the White House in the four days leading up to the speech because “the President wants to show it could be bought anywhere.” Agents would intentionally entrap Keith Jackson, arranging a deal in Lafayette Park, a few blocks from the White House. The trouble was, Lafayette Park was hardly an open-air drug market. In fact, zero drug arrests, let alone crack-related arrests had been made in the Park. Local law enforcement, Major Robert Hines, a commander tasked with patrolling the park noted, “we don’t consider that a problem area” when asked about Lafayette Park. He explained, “there’s too much activity going on there for drug dealers…there’s always a uniformed police presence.” By their own admission, agents had to “manipulate” Jackson to get him to come to Lafayette Park. Despite attending a high school just 4.4 miles away from the White House, Jackson grew up isolated from the wealth and opportunity just beyond his neighborhood.
In fact, when first coerced to make the sale near the White House, Jackson replied on audiotape, “Where the fuck is the White House?” When informed that it was the residence of the President, the ill-informed youth replied, “oh, you mean where Reagan lives?” Jackson’s lack of social capital, despite his hometown, speaks to the certainty of spatial apartheid in the Crack Era. It also helps explain in part why Jackson found himself on the corner chasing his american dream in ways deemed unseemly by Kennebunkport company.
Bush wasted little time reminding the nation of their much heralded scapegoat and foil: the urban underclass. “Whose responsible?” Bush continued, “Let me tell you straight out — everyone who uses drugs, everyone who sells drugs, and everyone who looks the other way.” By framing the locus of the drug problem and drug markets in poor urban neighborhoods, Bush was clear: “it’s turning our cities into battle zones… and that’s why I’m targeting $50 million to fight crime in public housing projects.” But again, in a climate of benign neglect, the threat would need to extend beyond cities to mobilize popular support for action and spending. Hence Bush reminded citizens with his useful prop, “No one among us is out of harm’s way.”
By the end of the speech Bush had doubled-down on the drug war’s commitment to punishment and expansion of the carceral state. Quite literally, Bush proposed that the United States “more than double” federal assistance to state and local law enforcement. In all, Bush called for “more prisons, more jails, more courts, more prosecutors.” The final ask was for an additional $1.5 billion for drug war enforcement, leaving the 1990 tab for drug war spending at almost $8 billion dollars, the largest increase in history.
In his own retelling of events, Bush began his commentary with an epigram from his infamous crack address that read: “But there is no match for a united America, a determined America, an angry America. Our outrage against drugs unites us.” Perhaps if our national response to crack had been one of unity, compassion, and reconciliation this address would be remembered differently. Instead, anger won the day. More importantly said anger had been refocused to the punishment and control of youth like Keith Jackson, the neighborhoods they grew up in, and the “culture” that so threatened a nation. “Our outrage” did not unite an entire country, but rather galvanized a familiar narrative of the drug war, “us versus them.”
Days after the address, Bush received criticism for his questionable choices in symbolism and execution. Even SNL satirized the moment. But Bush remained steadfast when grilled by reporters: “I think it was great because it sent a message to the United States that even across from the White House they can sell drugs.” When pushed further about the legitimacy of engineering a drug bust to fit his script, Bush chided: “I cannot feel sorry for him. I’m sorry, they ought not be peddling these insidious drugs that ruin the children of this country.” Bush equated Jackson’s and others involvement in the drug game to a choice, a poor one at that and evidence of moral failure.
At the close of his address, Bush shared the ballad of “Dooney” a local D.C. youth born to a broken home in a poor neighborhood. When asked about his future Dooney said “I don’t want to sell drugs, but I’ll probably have to.” Bush had hoped to use Dooney too, as a prop. Dooney might evoke sympathy and mobilize a call for action. But perhaps we all should have given Dooney’s wisdom a bit more thought. Dooney, much like Keith Jackson, would not end up choosing the drug game for himself. Structural inequality, spatial isolation, and the crack trade would choose him. Perhaps too Bush and the nation needed to view Keith Jackson with the same sympathy we might view Dooney. At 18, Keith Jackson was hardly a super-predator, but rather, a child trying to make it the best way he knew how.
While we remember the Bush crack address, we don’t remember Keith Jackson. That’s because Keith Jackson didn’t matter to the folks that wrote, orated, and consumed that night’s address beyond their ability to control him as a potential threat. When Jackson eventually stood trial for the transaction in question and three earlier sales, he was denied bail. Judge Stanley Sporkin refused to set bail, labeling Jackson an imminent threat to the community. After a mistrial, Jackson was eventually convicted of three counts, despite charges stemming from the crack address being dismissed. Sporkin sentenced Jackson to ten years under federal mandatory minimum guidelines with enhanced punishment for crack sales near schools. In a sad bit of gallows humor, Sporkin suggested that Jackson seek clemency from his buyer, the federal government, which was never granted.
On the day of Jackson’s sentencing media camped outside the courthouse. They weren’t there for him, though. Jackson wasn’t the story. He didn’t matter. Instead, they were there for yet another racially infused chapter in the Crack Era, the Marion Barry scandal. Like many District inmates in the federal system, Jackson bounced around from Petersburg, Va., to Ashland, Ky., to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., and finally to Lewisburg, Pa. He was released on August 5, 1998. In our traditional drug war narrative, Jackson is a mere footnote. This in effect is the problem. If we want to understand the drug war, its roots, and move towards potential solutions we need to understand the individual contexts of the Dooney’s and Keith’s of the world. As I constantly remind undergraduate students, footnotes matter too.